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Buckle Up, the Eastern Conference’s Upper Echelon Is a War Zone

As the dust settles on the trade deadline, the East’s elite stand together as the biggest winners. Will one of the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers, or Celtics separate themselves from the pack in the second half?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The race is on in the East. Of the top five teams with the best Vegas odds of making the Finals, four (Raptors, Celtics, Sixers, Bucks) are Eastern squads; of those four, only the Celtics managed to not make a move before the trade deadline. The 76ers added Tobias Harris and dumped Markelle Fultz in separate deals, while the Raptors traded for Marc Gasol and the Bucks grabbed Nikola Mirotic. The thought process behind all those moves was the same: The margin for error in the playoffs is razor thin, and the consequences for coming up short could be devastating. Now that the dust has settled after the deadline, these rosters could be as good as it gets for all four teams. None of them have control over their own future. All four could see their best chance of contending for a title walk out the door this summer.

Toronto has been living on borrowed time all season. It traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer despite having no assurances that he would re-sign with them when his contract expires at the end of this season. The Raptors’ best chance of keeping the enigmatic superstar is to put a title contender around him. They have lived up to their end of the bargain in the regular season, with a 39-16 record and a plus-5.0 net rating, but they haven’t separated themselves from the other contenders out East. The Raptors have no way to replace Kawhi if he leaves, and they have more reason than ever to worry about his future now that the Clippers have opened up enough cap space to sign two players to max contracts. Kawhi is a Southern California native who was reportedly pushing to be traded back home before Toronto swooped in to grab him in July.

Trading for Gasol should make them better. None of the players they gave up (Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles) were a major part of their team. Gasol gives them a different look at center. He’s an elite shooter (34.4 percent from 3 on 4.2 attempts per game) and playmaker (4.7 assists on 2.2 turnovers per game) among players at the position, and his ability to defend the post without needing a double-team could be huge in a potential series against Joel Embiid. Gasol’s combination of size, toughness, and basketball IQ makes him almost impossible to move inside, and he has held the Philadelphia center to 6-of-18 shooting (33.3 percent) in their two games this season.

Gasol, who turned 34 in January, can do only so much at this stage of his career, though. He wasn’t all that quick even when he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in the 2012-13 season, and his lack of foot speed can be exposed when he’s forced to defend smaller guards in space. There isn’t an obvious matchup for him in a potential series against Boston or Milwaukee. The former will use Al Horford and drag him out on the perimeter in pick-and-pop plays, while the latter can run him off the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 5 in small-ball lineups. The trade doesn’t change the fact the Raptors will still have to move Pascal Siakam to center at some point in the playoffs.

The Bucks traded for Mirotic to give themselves more versatility up front, precisely for those matchups against more mobile 5s. Their offense relies heavily on Brook Lopez to space the floor from the center position, and Lopez has many of the same issues as Gasol when defending in space. Milwaukee parks him in the paint instead of asking him to roam on the perimeter, creating an Achilles heel that will be exploited in the playoffs. Mirotic gives them a Plan B. He’s a knockdown shooter (36.8 percent from 3 on 7.2 attempts per game this season) who can also put the ball on the floor and make plays on the move, and he held up on defense when playing next to Anthony Davis in last season’s playoffs. He should be able to handle a similar role next to Giannis.

The Bucks didn’t give up that much in the three-team trade with the Pistons and Pelicans: Thon Maker and four future second-round picks, only one of which was their own. The bigger risk was adding another player entering free agency to the roster. Giannis is now the only one of their top six players under contract past this season. Khris Middleton (should he opt out of the final year of his contract), Eric Bledsoe, Lopez, and Mirotic will all be unrestricted free agents, and Malcolm Brogdon will be restricted. Having so many important players with unsettled futures can cause a lot of locker-room issues, but the Bucks have been so dominant this season (40-13 record with a net rating of plus-9.9) that none has emerged. That can all change quickly, though, in the crucible of a tight playoff series.

Milwaukee still has a lot to figure out. The Bucks could clear enough cap space to go after another superstar to pair with Giannis in the offseason, but that would come at the cost of gutting their team. However, they would also have to go deep into the luxury tax to bring everyone back, making it almost impossible to upgrade around Giannis before he hits free agency in 2021. They don’t really know what they have yet. This is head coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season with the team, and this group of players has never even gotten out of the first round before. No matter what happens in the playoffs, there will be a lot of teams chasing their supporting cast this summer.

Philadelphia, at least in theory, didn’t have to put itself on the same rushed timetable. It has Embiid under contract until 2023, while Ben Simmons is still on his rookie deal. The 76ers could have been conservative when it came to building around their two young stars and counted on their development to raise the ceiling of the team while making minor tweaks around them. They took the opposite approach, creating a much better team than the one that lost to Boston in the second round of last season’s playoffs. The problem is they may not be able to keep them together past this season.

The in-season additions of Harris (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds), Jimmy Butler (6-foot-8 and 232 pounds), Jonathon Simmons (6-foot-6 and 195 pounds), and James Ennis (6-foot-7 and 210 pounds) gives them one of the longest and most athletic groups of wings in the league. The Celtics ran an equal-opportunity offense that mercilessly exploited the weakest links in the 76ers defense last season, and they won’t have nearly as many to exploit this time around. Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown now has a number of different lineup options that he can turn to, including his own twist on the Lineup of Death with no one under 6-foot-7.

The key is whether he can get all his new players to buy into smaller roles. Butler has already publicly complained about taking a back seat to Embiid and Simmons. And while Harris may not be as quick to rock the boat, playing as the fourth option will still be a difficult adjustment for a 26-year-old who was having an All-Star-caliber season as the leading scorer on a playoff team. Both players will likely be unrestricted free agents this offseason, so there’s nothing the 76ers can do to keep them around if they want to leave, and there’s no way for them to replenish the assets they lost to bring them on board. They made a gamble that will only pay off with a deep run in the playoffs.

The Celtics planned carefully so that they wouldn’t be in the same type of position. They spent years amassing a massive war chest to trade for Anthony Davis, and they should be in the driver’s seat to make a deal with the Pelicans for the disgruntled superstar this summer. The problem is that their pitch to Davis was supposed to be built around playing with Kyrie Irving. However, ever since the Knicks opened up enough cap space to sign two max free agents by trading away Kristaps Porzingis, Irving has walked back any assurances that he would re-sign with the Celts this summer.

Boston was caught in a Catch-22 over the past week. They couldn’t make a trade to upgrade their current roster because they had to save all their best assets to make a deal for Davis this summer, but the whole point of trading for Davis was to pair him with Kyrie, and their best chance of keeping Kyrie is to be as good as possible now. Kyrie, despite playing the best basketball of his career, has spent most of this season publicly complaining about his teammates. The grass is always greener for an unhappy star. Kyrie forced his way out of Cleveland only a year after winning a championship, and he may be more intrigued by the potential of playing with Kevin Durant in New York City than anything that Boston can do.

There’s no way to predict what any free agent will do from the outside. Last season, Oklahoma City made the same gamble with Paul George that Toronto recently made with Kawhi, and it looked like it had blown up in OKC’s face when they were knocked out of the first round. Instead, they were able to make enough of a positive impression on George that they convinced him to stay, and now he’s playing like an MVP candidate. The Thunder didn’t have to go all in this season. They have George and Russell Westbrook locked in until 2021. They have the luxury of trying to wait out the Warriors, which no one in the East does.

The last two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs will be a bloodbath. The stakes are incredibly high. None of the four favorites out East are particularly old. All four are built around players in their prime, and they all have a core of young talent that should only improve with time. None of that matters, though, if some of their best players leave this summer. The NBA is a players’ league. You need superstars to win, and superstars always have the leverage. It doesn’t matter how smart a team is. Their fate is out of their hands. There’s no way to reach for the top without also setting yourself up for a big fall.